Artistic expression aims to do one of three things: normalize, distract or inform. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus preaches the ubiquity of failure, The Persistence Of Memory arrests its audience with color and distortion, and The Wounded Deer explores the pleasure and poison of theology with pedagogical strangeness.
The value of pretty things goes beyond ontology, however. According to new research published Wednesday in the BMJ journal, those who frequent galleries, museums, and operas a few times a month or more decrease their risk of dying early by 31%, compared to those that do not.
“While other health behaviors like smoking, alcohol, and exercise are undoubtedly bigger predictors of mortality, these leisure and pleasure activities that people don’t think as a health-related activity do support good health and longevity,” said Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor at UCL’s Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health, and an author of the new study. “If this (study) is added to the larger body of evidence, we are getting an increasingly rich picture on how arts can benefit health and it’s not about one single outcome. It can have wide-ranging benefits and support healthier lives lived longer.”
The art of life and death: associations between arts and mortality
The researchers began stitching their thesis together after reviewing a previously published study on aging comprised of over 6,000 English adults, 50 years of age or older.
Over the course of the first leg of the study, participants were polled on how often they attended artistic institutions. After all of the responses were submitted, the researchers from University College London conducted a follow-up study 14 years later, using The National Health Service of the United Kingdom in order to determine how many participants had died since the completion of the first analysis. Not only did engaging in artistic activities every few months or more yield a 31% risk decrease for early mortality, those that visited a gallery, museum or theater once or twice a year were additionally 14% less likely to die at an early age. From the report:
“Part of the association is attributable to differences in socioeconomic status among those who do and do not engage in the arts, which aligns with research that suggests engagement in cultural activities is socially patterned. Receptive arts engagement could have a protective association with longevity in older adults. This association might be partly explained by differences in cognition, mental health, and physical activity among those who do and do not engage in the arts, but remains even when the model is adjusted for these factors.
Ultimately, socioeconomic factors accounted for 9% of the mortality correlation. Although mental health, mobility, and civic engagement had small roles to play in surging statistics, no independent component proved to be quite as material as the culture correlate that inspired the paper.
Art seemed to set off a therapeutic chain reaction. Those that reveled in it with any sort of regularity evidenced lower levels of stress, higher levels of ingenuity, adaptability and tended to report enjoying a robust social life. The authors also observed a greater sense of purpose within this demographic: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost anyhow.”
Which brings us back to the trinity of expression established in the introduction. I for one am exceedingly grateful for those who bore the minds to preserve bones and antiquities, but I won’t try to articulate my gratitude more eloquently than the art historian, Georges Didi-Huberman. He wrote, “In each historical object all times encounter one another, bifurcate, or even become entangled with one another.”
Whatever the form, things made by human hands can’t help but project values and solace. We can all relate to the agony of being, and we can all benefit when it’s finely expressed.